Blind man bluffs it in Poland

A diary entry from the archive about my trip to DjangoCon in Warsaw, Poland.

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I got the opportunity to go to Warsaw for DjangoCon EU, 2013. Here’s how I got on.

I often joke about how I’ve jumped out of an aeroplane, but that I’m scared of public speaking, even though I was an am-dram kid. I know, I’m a bucket of contradictions. But, partly because I was never allowed to let my eyesight become an excuse (rightly so, natch) but partly ‘cos I refuse to be defeated by a world more easily navigable to most, I like to try and square off against fearful situations and poke them in the face.

So as I write this, I’m sat in my room at Hostel S?u?ewiec in Warsaw, Poland. This is the first time I’ve left the country on my own to go to an event in which I won’t know anyone. To be honest, I think that would make most people nervous, so there’s definitely some douchey overcompensation going on, but nobody’s perfect.

Naturally there are some challenges at play and unfortunately they all involve other people:

  1. I don’t speak Polish
  2. I can’t see very well, so explaining that might be difficult, if it were to come up
  3. I’m doing this by myself, so I don’t have anyone to lean on. In all situations, I have to take the initiative

There are ways to mitigate at least some of this, though. For one thing, I got from the airport to the hotel by showing the name and address of the hostel to the driver on my iPhone. When the journey ended, he luckily spoke enough English to tell me the amount I owed, without any further kerfuffle.

So far everything’s gone pretty smoothly, but I’ve yet to venture out of my room, and I’m unlikely too now, given that it’s getting gradually darker. Luckily I packed enough food and water to last me the night, and I’ve a few episodes of Parks & Recreation to lull me to sleep before the fun really begins tomorrow.

It dawns on me that I haven’t really explained why I’m in Poland in the first place. Well, every year, a group of people organise a conference in a European city, for the web framework I love, and cut my teeth on around 2009. The framework’s called Django, and the conference is, predictably enough called DjangoCon Europe. That’s in fact the bit I’m least worried about as, once we hit the “Convention floor” as it were, it’ll just be another con, and it won’t matter that I’m in a different country or I don’t know the layout because pretty much everyone else will be in the same boat.

So yeah, I feel a little guilty that I’m probably not going to venture out tonight, like I’m somehow not taking proper advantage of my situation, but there’s such a thing as pushing one’s luck, and I don’t know that it’s that wise to be wondering around a darkened, unfamiliar city while my face is lit up like a Christmas tree with a nice, reflective Apple logo infront of it.

I really hope I meet some likeminded people and form a friendship or two. I’d much rather be heading out to a bar with a bunch of virtual strangers than lying on my single-serving hostel bed, but that for me is perhaps the biggest challenge of all, and unlike my travel arrangements, there isn’t an app for that.

Let’s see what tomorrow brings, eh?

Day two

Me and my shadow

My second day in Poland marked the first day of DjangoCon Europe 2013, the web conference I’m attending on my own. If you’ve not been following the story, you can catch up.

Map apps - however clumsy a phrase - are µy saviour, and I suspect the saviour of anyone who finds navigating the physical world, or following directions tricky. They tried to teach me mental mapping at school, but much like with Polish phonetics - as I’ve gradually found out - it just doesn’t sink in.

Via a slightly circuitous route I was able to get to the venue with plenty of time to spare. With so much time to spar in fact, that the water urns hadn’t yet reached anything approaching boiling point. So I trudged off to find breakfast, which ended up being a KFC, and was back in time to kick off my first DjangoCon.

I’ve really enjoyed it so far, but will blog about that separately. I got through the day largely incident-free, apart from a slight snafu at lunch involving a ticket I didn’t know I needed, but had in the bottom of my bag. I was able to walk back with some people who were in the same hotel as me, and ended up finding a much nicer route (not to be replicated the following day though, but more on that story tomorrow).

My main problem seemed to be with getting to the venue for the first night party, which was on a street called Rac?awicka. Despite researching Polish phonetics and asking on Twitter for the correct pronunciation, it turns out that there are some sounds I just can’t replicate, ‘cos it took my poor driver three attempts to finally find the place, with one of them involving me showing him the street name in a tweet (and that wasn’t even the last attempt).

On the way back, I think someone nicked my cab but I was able to hop in with a bunch of guys who were heading back to the hostel, and were kind enough to refuse my offer of payment. Have you ever been in a cab with a group of total strangers, only having your basic trust in humanity and assumption that you’d heard the street name right, for company? Well, it’s a weird feeling, but kind of liberating.

As I write this, it’s lunchtime on the second day of the conference, and I’m sat on my backside in the shade, looking like the guy they get in to frame the stock photography shot before replacing him with the hot girl. Also I have things crawling up me, so I should probably get up.

See you in a bit.

Day three

Inside the DjangoCon tent

Thursday in Warsaw wasn’t one of my favourites; it just felt like nothing really went as well as it could do. This is my third day in Poland for DjangoCon, so maybe check out my earlier posts if you want to catch up.

It all started with a trek to the venue. Like an idiot I stuck slavishly to the map on my phone, but like an even bigger idiot I used Google Maps rather than the admittedly beleaguered Apple offering. They’re both pretty inaccurate as I don’t think I’m in quite the bustling metropolis that maps tend to excel at, but Wednesday worked and Thursday didn’t. I ended up in stinging nettles, tramping in water and performing more u-turns than your favourite political hate-target of choice.

I’m aware at this point that I’ve probably got family and friends reading this who’d been concerned for my survival. I can’t really do a lot to allay those fears other than to say that, in all honesty, the same thing happens to me in Birmingham on a not irregular basis, so really Warsaw is just another place for me to get lost. I can deal with that in daylight, so I made a pact with myself not to travel on foot at night. That’s how I survive, and I’m still in one piece with all my belongings :)

Anyway, back to the con. Day one had brought with it a nice few coffee-break chats with all sorts, but for whatever reason today just didn’t happen for me, and I barely said anything to anyone, apart from a nice chap from the south of Poland who talked mobile development with me before the lightening talks.

There is a point at which this is down to other people. Pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to has been nice, but I haven’t felt bathed in the warm glow of inclusion that I maybe expected, perhaps unfairly. I don’t think you can blame people; most are here with people they work with or otherwise know, and the ones who had come alone tended to be the more receptive. I don’t know what I’d hoped ,maybe to merge into a group or find some guys at the hostel hat might want to grab a drink, but maybe I either set my sights too high or just didn’t put enough effort into making conversation.

In fairness, the reticence of others might not be completely imagined on my part; I guess people were pretty hungover this morning as the first night party went on tip the wee small hours, so I’m told.

After a longer walk home than was necessary, due to me forgetting the right combination of turns - but it’s difficult to be downhearted when your’e walking in the gorgeous sunshine Warsaw’s enjoying right now - I tried to order some pizza from the Internet. It didn’t turn up, and I had no number to contact the nearest branch (I’m sure I could’ve looked into it more, but I was already feeling non-plussed and didn’t fancy an argument involving me being an ignorant Brit trying to make himself understood). Luckily I’d had the good sense to opt to pay on delivery rather than beforehand, so I just let it go and assumed that my pizza went the way of yesterday’s cab. Whatever.

In the end, I spent the evening working on a lightening talk of my own. For the uninitiated, this simply involves popping your name on a list on a first-come first-served basis and, if you get called up, you get to plug your laptop in and present a five minute talk. So I put one together and, unless a strange fear grips me, I’ll submit it.

Today was by no means a disaster, but let’s see what tomorrow brings.

Day four

Panorama of the site at night

If I finished yesterday feeling a little isolated, I finished today feeling like a king, all thanks to a fat grey cat.

Last night I tentatively considered doing a lightening talk, as I thought it would be a great calling card: an introduction to a guy who’s been using Django for a while and knows his stuff, but has yet to become part of the community. So while I was waiting for my non-existent pizza, I worked on a slideshow on the off-chance that I could get to talk.

In the first break of the final day of the conference, I put my name down for a talk. However, it turned out that there were so many before me that it would be almost impossible for me to get on-stage. I wasn’t super upset about this because I thought part of the battle was getting up the courage to sign up.

I enjoyed the talks and managed to hook up with a chap I’d been drinking with on Wednesday night, called James (or Ogre). Even speaking to one familiar face was heartening enough, and we discovered that the closing party was to be held at the conference venue, which meant I could relax.

As the final talks gave way to the lightening round, my stomach started churning. I knew I was almost certainly not getting picked, even though they’d asked people to shorten their talks and scheduled in something like 24 talks.

But towards the end, a name was called and then I was asked to come to the stage to prepare, which basically meant sitting down with one of the organisers and readying my laptop for connection to the projector. After a bit of faff I was plugged in and ready to go. And this here is my talk, recorded from my iPhone.

The reaction I got to the cat that looked like a pierogi sealed the deal, or so I thought, but throughout the night and the following day I got comments from people telling me how inspiring they found it.

Every compliment was of immense value to me, but I couldn’t help but take a special degree of delight from comments by Danny Greenfeld, co-author of Two Scoops of Django, contributor and multiple conference speaker.

I think it’s fair to say that it had the desired effect. It introduced me as a shy guy with some good ideas but no foothold in the community, and gave people an excuse or a pretext to come over and talk to me.

Shortly after the lightening talks ended and I stopped shaking, we all had a group photo taken and we dispersed for an hour before the party began. I spent that hour in the company of some of the incest and most fun people I’ve had the pleasure to know. I can’t list them all ‘cos I’m in an airport with no Internet access and I don’t want to miss people out, but you know who you are, and I love you.

When the party broke up we headed to a garage for more beers, and drank them on a grass verge, as an impromptu session of lightening talks took place. “Respect the speaker” became the catchphrase of the evening, and I headed back to my hotel via taxi with a couple of pleasantly drunk Austrians.

I crawled into bed at around 4:30am while the sun was coming up, feeling several kinds of fuzzy. I’d done it. I’d won DjangoCon and Poland. I felt like a king. I’d stuck my neck out, put myself “out there” and the response I got couldn’t have been much better.

Thank you.

Day five


After getting into the hostel at around 4:30 and eating a petrol garage sandwich, I’d set my alarm for 9am so I’d have enough time to get myself to the Gamma Factory in town, to attend the first day of sprints. I woke up at 11:45, checked my phone and saw the alarm was marked to go off on weekdays. Today was Saturday.

After all my talk yesterday of wanting to be part of the community, and signing up to attend a workshop on committing code to Django, I’d failed. If I turned up I was going to be late, I’d almost certainly miss the workshop and would end up walking around aimlessly searching for something to do.

All of this would’ve made me feel like a gaping arsehole, but for this simple phrase:

I regret nothing.

I’d had a memorable and potentially life-changing night, and one of the side-effects of having such a night is that you can’t always be in tip-top condition the next day. So I got showered, dressed and out the door to my taxi.

Now, a note on being blind in the back of a non-English speaking driver’s cab. In Birmingham, it’s pretty common to have an Asian taxi driver. Sometimes they’re first-generation immigrants and very occasionally their English isn’t all that great. But I’ve never had a problem asking what I owed and paying. This wasn’t true of Warsaw.

That’s not a criticism at all. I don’t expect people to speak my native tongue, but it does create a problem when you can’t read the numbers on screen and they can’t say them in English. But this is my problem, and I’ve tried to solve it in different ways. What tends to be the most effective is getting it written down on a receipt, as a) that’s not abnormal and b) it’s relatively easy to communicate.

So after hopping out of the car I headed indoors to the Gamma Factory, an interesting, sparsely-decorated venue which put me in mind of bits of the Custard Factory in Digbeth, but cooler and with a lot more spit-and-sawdust.

As I’d guessed, I wasn’t able to join in with anything as people were hard at work on their own projects, so I took a seat and began work on my own idea.

For the uninitiated, sprints (which is a term I’ve only known inside the Python community but I’m sure exists outside it) are a little like hackathons. They’re time set aside for working intensely to achieve a goal. That goal might be to fix a bug, start work on a new feature, or document an existing one.

Because I’d missed the intro, I’d forfeited my ability to work on Django or anything related, so I got to work on something I’d wanted to build for a week or so. I won’t go into the details, but it’s a hopefully useful tool that I can open source and deploy online for people to check out.

The sprints - certainly the first day - were pretty heavily over-subscribed, meaning the organisers didn’t have enough food for everyone. But once again they rose to the challenge and went above and beyond, feeding people with chicken and rice, chocolate cake, and pizzas both vegetarian and meaty. This echoed the feeling I got through the whole conference. Obviously I don’t have a previous one to compare it to, but I feel like the Polish organising committee really did their attendees proud. Hats off to ‘em.

We had to leave at around 6:30pm and so I raced to finish my project. I’m happy to say I pretty much smashed it, thanks to having a good prototyping toolset (as I’d mentioned in yesterday’s talks) and a bunch of code that only needed minor improvements. I’ll be putting the results of that online as soon as I’ve got access to wifi and a clear head.

James and I had been working across from each-other all day, and we ended up in a group of people from across Europe, in search of a “real” meal before the unofficial “drink up”, which was in a park by an overpass. We found a faux-Brazilian restaurant - a sort of Hooters affair - and chewed over the last three days of talks, then headed out on foot to the venue.

It turned out that this weekend marked a national holiday in Poland. Everything on Sunday was to be closed, and everyone who is everyone was outside drinking in a big public piss-up. It had a nice atmos; there were loads of people but the whole thing felt really safe and without the rowdiness you’d expect from a British affair, but then there aren’t that many opportunities for Brits to drink outdoors so we kinda like to let our hair down when the time does arrive.

I tried throughout my week in Poland not to attach myself to someone like a leech, in the hope that they’d keep me safe, so I always had to strike a balance between letting the night take its course and getting home with safety in numbers. I hope James didn’t feel like I glommed onto him too much, but it was for his company and the laughs, not for anything else that I think we ended up bumping into each other or hanging out. He did let me grab the first taxi, too.

I ended Saturday night full to the brim with heavy beer, having eaten well and experienced a Polish piss-up. I think it went pretty well.

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